Opponents of a plan to draw down the Forestville Millpond filled the gallery Thursday morning (Jan. 10), but members of two Door County Board committees said they had already heard and addressed all their concerns in more than a year of study.
The Facilities & Parks and Land Conservation committees voted to advance the two-year draw-down plan to the full County Board, which will consider the resolution when it meets at 10 a.m. Jan. 22 at the County Government Center, 421 Nebraska St., Sturgeon Bay.
“Since we’ve heard all these stories – this is about the third or fourth time – try not to be redundant, try to come to the point,” Facilities & Parks Committee Chairman Dan Austad said at the start of the public comment portion of the meeting, adding that the final decision rests with the full County Board.
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The Forestville Millpond is a dammed reservoir fed by the waters of the upper Ahnapee River in southern Door County. A 1996 study of water quality was done because of concerns over “a diminished sport fishery accompanied by conditions undesirable for swimming,” according to the study’s introduction.
That study listed nine possible management options, including a one-year draw down of the pond’s water levels to “freeze out” undesirable fish and plant species, create a “hard pan” of dried sediments that would not be re-suspended when the water levels were restored, and improve the aesthetics of the pond, all at a relatively low cost.
The downside of a draw down would be potential odors associated with plant material decay, disruption and/or destruction of aquatic habitats, and potential negative impacts downstream during the draw down and refill, the 1996 study said.
In the end the county decided to take the least expensive option: Do nothing. The “take no action alternative” would, in part, take advantage of the Millpond’s function as a sediment basin, “which improves water quality downstream and reduces the volume of sediment delivered to Lake Michigan,” the study said.
Minutes of the Land Conservation Committee over the past three years indicated a comparison of water samples from 1994-95 and 2012-13 showed average phosphorus levels in the pond had tripled in those two decades.
That was among the concerns that led the Airport & Parks Committee – the precursor to Facilities & Parks – to revisit the Forestville dam in 2016 to review the water quality in the 94-acre pond and direct the parks director to work with Land Conservation to seek public input and make new recommendations for the pond’s future management.
The minutes of the Land Conservation Committee’s Aug. 18, 2016, meeting quote Door County conservationist Greg Coulthurst as explaining that “utilizing a draw down method would result in short-term water clarity, freeze out some weeds and provide a little compaction of the sediments.”
Airport & Parks held a special meeting in November 2016 during which most speakers advocated for better water quality and saving the pond. Door County Administrator Ken Pabich directed the Soil & Water Conservation Department “to apply for a DNR Lake Planning Grant to retest the waters and sediment to get up-to-date information,” according to the minutes of the Nov. 17, 2016, Land Conservation meeting.
The state Department of Natural Resources granted Door County $22,013 in March 2017, and the county matched half that amount to complete the approximately $33,000 study, which included new sampling and sending a survey to 997 landowners in the Ahnapee River watershed – 316 responded.
The department’s final report from the new study was submitted in June 2018. Running 88 pages, the study revealed high concentrations of total phosphorus in the accumulated sediment, along with elevated levels of oil and grease and traces of heavy metals. About 25 percent of upstream water samples exceeded the established stream threshold for total phosphorus concentrations, and two of three samples taken in the pond itself exceeded thresholds.
The survey showed “the majority of landowners within the Millpond watershed would like to address water quality, clarity and quantity. A large segment of respondents would like to see more fish and fewer aquatic plant and algae,” the report said.
“Overwhelmingly, the participants in the survey do not agree with continuing to do nothing, and do not agree with removal of the dam,” according to the report’s executive summary.
DRAW DOWN OPPOSITION
Austad was presented with a 30-page petition opposed to the draw down and several letters, and more than a half-dozen speakers took advantage of the opportunity to voice their opposition, including Robert Sijgers, a waterfront property owner representing the Friends of the Forestville Dam organization.
Sijgers recounted a town hall meeting last year when 10 management options were listed, including a one-year draw down.
“Last December there was a town hall follow-up meeting where we were presented with a two-year draw down, which was not one of the original 10 options,” Sijgers said. “People were astonished by this and voiced opposition.”
But when people asked why two years instead of one, officials replied simply, “Because two years is better,” he said.
“We demand more accountability from our officials, especially when people have their lifetime savings invested in their properties,” Sijgers said, “not to mention the many families enjoying the pond and its surroundings on a regular basis.”
He said Door County’s approach to the issue does nothing about the underlying problem of agricultural run-off and appears to be, “ Open the valve, relocate the problem to Kewaunee County and see what happens the next several years, ignoring completely the real stakeholders and local people’s grave concerns.”
Opening the dam gates would allow sediment and nutrient run-off to travel downstream, Forestville Village Trustee Lora Jorgenson said.
“I believe the pollution … in the Millpond is the responsibility of Door County, not Kewaunee County where it’s going to end up once it goes downstream,” Jorgenson said.
Door County Soil & Water is dredging sediment at two northern sites but that option was rejected in Forestville because of the potential cost, she said. The northern lakes don’t have waterfront properties like those around the Millpond, which pay higher taxes.
Jorgenson said it’s time projects in southern Door County get the same level of investment as Northern Door.
“Southern Door is really the gateway to the rest of Door County,” she said. “It’s time for Door County to start treating Southern Door with equality.”
Forestville Village President Terry McNulty said the draw-down plan is “just flawed” and he can’t believe the DNR would sign off on it.
“Your plan is flawed because it’s made … by people who may have an alternative agenda,” McNulty said. “There’s no urgency to actually do anything right now. There’s no funding mechanism; nothing’s going to change.”
McNulty said it’s clear Door County understands how bad the impact will be, because it plans to wait to draw the pond down until November, after a TMDL (total maximum daily load) study is completed along the Ahnapee downstream in Kewaunee County.
Algoma resident Dick Swanson said the real problem is the manure spread on farm fields that finds itself in the river and settles in the pond sediment.
“And you’re going to send them downstream, and they’re going to be caught up in our waterway,” Swanson said. “You’re sending pollutants downstream because you don’t want to spend the money to dredge it … What are you going to do about the people who are putting the pollutants in the water upstream? When are you going to address that question?”
Don Pirrung, a retired environmental engineer, said Door County did a “nice job” on the study but should make its objectives more clear and make sure the draw down will accomplish them.
“If you want fish, make sure the water quality upstream is such that you can accomodate fish,” Pirrung said. “There’s an interesting statement that 88 percent of the farms upstream are part of a best management plan … Either the numbers are wrong or the best management practices aren’t being effective.”
State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, said if the project goes forward he and state Sen. Andre Jacque plan to work with the DNR and local officials to make sure any impact on the river is “minimal and temporary.”
‘NOBODY WILL GET HURT HERE’
“We’ve heard it all before,” Austad said as he closed the public comments. “I can say that almost everything that came up today was addressed some place along the line. We’ve had meetings for, I don’t know, the last six months to a year, there’s been 25-30 people involved, many of them experts. Every question was answered … We were asked to do something because the Millpond is dying.”
Door County Supervisor Susan Kohout said she understands the prospect of drawing down the pond for two years is scary to people, and she said the speakers’ concerns are legitimate but are not the full picture.
“I don’t know how many of them realize how long this process has gone on, how many times different things have been listened to,” Kohout said. “There’s no easy solution, but if we’re going to do something, I think this is probably the best of the bad choices. I don’t know any way around it.”
Land Conservation Committee Chairperson Ken Fisher was more blunt, saying the DNR would prefer that the dam be removed and the Ahnapee River be allowed to resume the path it took before the first dam was built for a flour mill in 1877. The existing dam was built in 1934 as a Works Progress Administration project.
“Somebody is going to be upset no matter what we do,” Fisher said. “(The DNR is) not concerned about the pollution downstream because a controlled draw down would limit that. They say the best thing to do is to take the dam out and just have a free-flowing stream right into Lake Michigan.”
State and local experts say that the two-year draw down is the right thing to do, he said.
“Nobody will get hurt here,” Fisher said. “It will be back after a little more than two years to the way it is with better quality water, better fishing, better for everybody.”
The committees voted a combined 7-1 to send the resolution to the full County Board. The one dissent came from citizen member Mike Vandenhouten, who had spoken in favor of either removing the dam or continuing to do nothing for another two years of study.